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North Sea Naval And Airactions

Volume 116: debated on Thursday 11 April 1940

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4.3 p.m.

My Lords, I beg to ask the noble Earl the Leader of the House if His Majesty's Government have any further statement to make about the naval action in the North Sea.

My Lords, I have here a statement compiled on a rough diary basis which I have no doubt the House will like to hear. I am afraid the information is in a somewhat disjointed form, but your Lordships will, I know, readily understand that as the naval action is still in progress that is under present conditions unavoidable. The First Lord of the Admiralty is at this moment making a statement in another place and if any item of news comes out in the course of that which is not included in the statement I am now making I hope to be in a position to give it to your Lordships before we adjourn.

On Sunday, April 7, early in the morning, a reconnaissance aircraft of the R.A.F. sighted a large enemy unit twenty miles north of Heligoland. As a result of further air reconnaissance an enemy force of cruisers and destroyers was located to the west of Horns Reef and a strong bomber force was dispatched to attack. This force located an enemy group consisting of a battle cruiser, cruisers and destroyers. An attack was carried out but no hits were observed. During this action an engagement with enemy fighters took place as a result of which one enemy fighter was destroyed and other losses are believed to have been inflicted. As previously announced, two bombers failed to return. Naval forces which were at sea during the day in the northern part of the North Sea saw no sign of the enemy, but reinforcements sailed immediately on receipt of the above information and suitable submarine dispositions were made. These reinforcements included units of the French and Polish Navies.

On Monday, the 8th, the minelaying operation previously planned was successfully carried out in the early morning of that day off the coast of Norway as has already been announced. Reports received indicated that a strong enemy force was leaving the Baltic and naval and air dispositions were adjusted accordingly. In the early morning His Majesty's ship "Glowworm" encountered two enemy destroyers about one hundred miles from the Norwegian coast and at once engaged. She subsequently reported sighting an unknown and more powerful enemy vessel. No further reports have been received from His Majesty's ship "Glowworm" and her loss must be presumed. Constant air reconnaissance was carried out from earlydawn—that is still on Monday—over the North Sea and in the early afternoon a Sunderland flying boat encountered a force consisting of an enemy capital ship, cruisers and destroyers. Weather conditions for a time were exceptionally bad and contact was made at very short range. The flying boat came under heavy fire but, although damaged, was able to return to her base.

A bomber force, which was sent out to search the Heligoland Bight for any enemy ships that might have been returning towards their bases, during the night located and attacked a number of enemy patrol vessels. During that afternoon—that is to say, Monday—submarine forces to the south of Norway reported considerable movements by enemy forces and merchant vessels. Our submarines were hampered by the extremely low visibility and in consequence it was not possible to deliver attacks. But as result of these reports further submarine dispositions were made and the main forces which were at sea moved to locate the enemy. During the evening, as has been previously announced, enemy bombers delivered an abortive attack on Scapa Flow in which five enemy bombers, in all, it is now believed were destroyed. It is confirmed that we sustained no damage during this raid.

On Tuesday, April 9, at dawn, one of our battle cruisers sighted two enemy warships—a battle cruiser and a heavy cruiser—in the Northern part of the area of operations. She gave chase at once through squalls of snow and a full gale. After a few minutes intense action one of the enemy ceased fire, and when she reopened it was evident that her fire control system had been put out of action and soon a vertical column of smoke arose from the enemy battle cruiser which turned right away and made off at high speed. The Nazi heavy cruiser busied herself in throwing a smoke screen across her companion—that is to say, the battle cruiser—but she retired when our vessel opened fire, dodging our broadsides at high speed. The contending forces lost touch in a blizzard of snow. Our ships sustained unimportant damage and no casualties. As a result of air reconnaissance in the early morning—that is, Tuesday—German naval units were disclosed to be at various ports in Norway, while reconnaissance over the Heligoland Bight failed to reveal the presence of any German ships. During these reconnaissances opposition from enemy aircraft was encountered as a result of which one of our aircraft failed to return whilst a number of enemy aircraft were damaged.

Units of the Home Fleet, while continuing their search for enemy capital ships, were attacked by enemy bombers in the afternoon. Earlier information was to the effect that superficial damage was inflicted on two cruisers and this was immediately announced. It is now learned that a heavy ship was hit by one bomb and sustained slight damage and three officers and seven ratings were injured. A third cruiser was also slightly damaged, one rating being killed and four injured. All four ships concerned are still operating with full efficiency. Further attacks by enemy bombers resulted in the loss of His Majesty's ship "Gurkha." The crew were picked up with the exception of fifteen who are missing. Acting on the earlier reports aircraft of Bomber Command attacked two enemy cruisers lying off Bergen. Two direct hits with heavy bombs were obtained inflicting severe damage. All our aircraft returned safely. A further notable success was secured by the sinking of an enemy cruiser by a British submarine south of Norway, as already announced.

No further information is as yet available on the other achievements of our submarines, but there is good reason to believe that they have been both active and successful. A British destroyer sighted a U-boat on the surface and at once attacked. The enemy submerged and was destroyed by depth charges. The attack which was made in the morning on enemy destroyers in Narvik was described to your Lordships yesterday. No further details are at present available. Dive bombers of the Fleet Air Arm reconnoitred Bergen Fjord at dawn and observed only one enemy cruiser. She was at once attacked and three direct hits with heavy bombs were obtained. Reconnaissance during the afternoon reports that this cruiser was sunk. Later in the day a German bomber was shot down by aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm.

4.11 p.m.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Snell has asked me to make a few comments, and they will be very few, on behalf of my noble friend, because obviously when operations are actually in progress they cannot be usefully discussed, but I have pleasure in thanking the noble Earl for giving us the account which is obviously as full as can properly be given to your Lordships at the present time. Perhaps I might be allowed to make these observations of a very general character. The first is that from what has happened in the last seven months we can have complete confidence in both the British and the French Navies. From what I have heard also I understand that the Polish destroyers operating with our Fleet and other units will also give a good account of themselves if they have an opportunity. There have been a great many rumours and reports in the last few days and my noble friends and my right honourable and honourable friends in another place think it necessary to express the hope that the Government will advise the public not to jump to hasty conclusions until the full facts are known. In the months in front of us, when apparently large scale operations of various kinds may be expected, there is need of fortitude and in that we are quite sure that the British people will not be lacking.

I also want on behalf of my noble friends and my Party, and I am sure of all your Lordships, to praise the gallantry of the Norwegian people, and to express our sympathy for them and their Monarch in their conduct of affairs in face of a treacherous and unprovoked assault. I noticed that the Foreign Secretary, at some public meeting yesterday, had some weighty words to say about neutrals and their duties and responsibilities at the present time. I see that his words have been re-echoed very quickly by one of the most important of the neutrals—namely, the Turks. In the 12 o'clock news broadcast to-day, it was stated that the Turks had drawn a lesson from the events of these last few days and that lesson is this: that there are now only two courses open to the neutrals of Europe: the one is to side with the Allies and the other is to prepare to suffer the fate of Germany's other victims.

There is one other matter that I think it would be useful just to mention, because, if what I am going to say has any foundation, it is a matter that the Government can begin to put right at once. It does not directly concern the Navy. We have a feeling, and it has been in existence for some time, that the Government's sources of information and intelligence services need improvement. My noble friend Lord Snell mentioned this matter many months ago when the Government were apparently taken by surprise at the conclusion of the Russo-German Pact, or Agreement. I do not want to particularise, obviously, but our sources of information do not seem to be quite as complete as they might be. I am sure the Government are also conscious of this, and I only repeat it because it is very widely discussed among people who are not irresponsible but who have naturally not the same sources of information as the Government themselves and yet are uneasy. The only other comment I would venture to make is that whatever happens in this vast operation which is proceeding now, speaking for myself I am quite confident that the old lesson of sea power is about to be re-taught and that before very long Herr Hitler and his advisers will be sorry they decided to go north.